Here’s a link to an article by Benjamin Schwartz in The Atlantic on whether jazz remains a vital art form or not. It takes the form of a review of the book The Jazz Standards, by Ted Gioia.
Schwartz admires a lot about Gioia’s book. And along the way he makes some interesting points. He quotes approvingly of one reviewer on Billy Strayhorn’s masterpiece that “it’s hard to think of another piece of music that has anything at all in common with ‘Lush Life‘”. Nicely put.
But that’s not the main point of Schwartz’s book review. His main game is to take issue with Gioia’s contention–after Gioia’s own acknowledgement that his book mostly enshrines old classics–that jazz remains a “vibrant present day endeavor”. Schwartz riffs it the other way, arguing that jazz is a relic.
His argument is based on the nature of the relationship between jazz and the Great American Songbook, “a body of refined, complex work that stands at the apogee of this country’s civilization, mostly written for the musical theater from roughly the 1920s to the 1950s by such composers and lyricists as Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, Vincent Youmans, and Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz.”
Jazz’s high point in Gioia’s account is roughly coterminous with the Songbook. What does this mean? According the Schwartz, Gioia steps back from drawing from this overlap the correct conclusion: that the relationship between jazz and the Songbook goes beyond the fact that many of the jazz greats improvised on Songbook material, and that the relationship between the two genres was fundamentally symbiotic. Put in the words of Cahn and van Heusen:
You can’t have one,
you can’t have none,
you can’t have one without the other!
And along with the drying up of the Songbook comes the inevitable atrophying of the jazz that was intertwined with it.
Schwartz’s argument is to me persuasive. He doesn’t just toss the idea out but makes a good effort to back it up with specifics about artist attitudes and song structure. And the argument resonates with me since I often find current jazz wanting and have not been sure why. Artists who continue to mine the Songbook seem like they have overstayed their welcome. And works that riff on more modern material end up unsatisfying in their own way. As much as I love the Beatles, hearing their work done by Blue Note artists or Brad Mehldau only serves to underscore the fundamental difference between the pop song structure in the Songbook and more recent pop-rock song structure. The former for some reason seems to fit jazz like a glove. The latter not so much.
Any thoughts? Do you find current jazz wanting? Has jazz inevitably reached the canon stage? And can you have one without the other?
N.B. None of this applies to Thelonius Monk. He’s not joined at the hip to the Songbook as much as he is to Stravinsky.